Ryan's Thoughts

Ryan’s Thoughts: Why we Must Address Safety When Talking Maintenance and Reliability

Ryan Chan

Ryan’s Thoughts

“Ryan’s Thoughts” is a blog series created by UpKeep CEO and Founder, Ryan Chan, where he will be sharing his insights and knowledge of the maintenance and reliability world.

Let’s Talk about Safety

The women and men that serve in maintenance and reliability risk their lives every single day to support, sustain, and maintain the infrastructure that we all benefit from. In 2018 there were over 900,000 workplace injuries reported and over 5,000 deaths (Link to OSHA statistics here). Not to mention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, estimates that over half of workplace injuries go unreported and the danger has only become more pronounced since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Generally, all people regard safety as an important focus. However, based on recent studies, there is still room for improvement. Especially in blue collar sectors. Safety needs to be a critical function of reliability, instead of what it often becomes, an afterthought.

The Challenge with Safety in Maintenance & Reliability

In the past decade, safety initiatives have been impactful, as we’ll explore below. Safety teams, guidelines, preventative measures, and preparedness have been elevated. This is amazing progress. But what about safety when the unexpected happens? Sure, people run through training courses for emergency preparedness, but oftentimes that information is not retained. On top of that, safety training is usually conducted through video, behind the safety of a computer screen.

Maintenance and reliability workers, however, do not have the same privilege that most of us do because their experience in safety is grounded in realtime and real life. They are constantly asked to perform their work when something has broken down. The majority of their work is inherently unsafe. As a society, we call on them to perform the work in dangerous environments.

To reiterate, maintenance is often done when a piece of equipment breaks down, when a machine goes outside of its normal operating standards. When a maintenance and reliability professional needs to repair equipment that’s operating outside of normal baselines… THAT is the time when it is most dangerous. We often forget and take for granted that maintenance is a dangerous job.

The crux of this article then, is not about pushing for more preventative safety training and OSHA guidelines. But it is about answering the question, “How do we keep our people safe within inherently unsafe spaces?”. Or rather, predictive safety training and guidelines. This might be a tall order and a bit of a conundrum, but there has to be a way for safety to be upheld when the unexpected breakdowns occur, when unexpected things happen, and when situations become dire.

Reflect Back to Move Forward

To start, let’s take a look back at our progress in order to evaluate what solutions we should pursue to make breakthroughs in the future. With that said, safety is touted across all industries. There are entire departments built around it, on top of metric tons of OSHA guidelines and safety regulations. Safety in the workplace has made amazing strides when it comes to preventative safety and preparation. Between 1994 and 2009 alone, the rate of occupational injuries in manufacturing facilities decreased by two-thirds, from over 12 injuries per 100 workers to only 4 (numbers from the US Department of Labor):

Taking a look back, the progress is outstanding. Looking forward, however there are still two major problems. One, is that over the last decade we have seen no major improvements in the rate of occupational injuries in manufacturing facilities (see chart from the US Department of Labor). This statistic is similar across other industries as well. Essentially, progress has stunted while costs have risen, and we have accepted that for over ten years now. Second, is that blue-collared professionals are still the most at risk. Their work environments are the most dangerous, and consequently, they still have the highest % share of injuries and fatalities in the workplace (Census by the US Department of Labor). There has to be a way to break this plateau and implement safety measures for our maintenance and reliability workers who operate under inherently unsafe conditions.

How we can Make a Breakthrough in Safety

At this point, the issue on safety has been inspected enough to start making general insights about how it can be addressed. In essence, 3 changes need to happen.

  1. Reliability needs to be balanced with safety.
  2. Teams should leverage technology to reimagine the way we conduct safety training.
  3. Businesses need to value safety (their people) over revenue


1. Reliability needs to be balanced with safety.

There is a commonly accepted belief that reliability and safety go hand in hand. Some strictly adhere to this belief, while other thought leaders, like Dr. Nancy Leveson, would consider them to be separate properties (thank you, Robert (Bob) Latino, for sharing a snippet of her work). To me, both schools of thought are valid. While I acknowledge that reliability does not necessarily or sufficiently equate to safety (and vice versa), I do propose that reliability should have a component of safety. Balance is key here.

Equipment and work spaces can be considered reliable yet unsafe, safe yet unreliable, both reliable and safe, or neither. In this sense, reliability and safety are separate factors. At the same time, however, there are many situations where reliability can promote safety. It stands to reason that if we reduce the time and events in which professionals have to work under unsafe conditions, then we can influence safety indirectly. The main point here is that safety is complex and there are a ton of moving parts – it would be irresponsible to claim that reliability always results in safety. A holistic approach and view is required in matters of safety, because safety is complex.

On another note, the reliability methodology could be crucial in impacting how we should approach safety. Reliability centered maintenance and the entire concept of reliability is all about expecting the unexpected and about having back up plans and preventing the unexpected. There are A-Z plans if equipment fails, this approach needs to be applied to safety as well. Safety should include protocols and training for as many complications and X factors we can account for. While many companies run through simulations with their workers, and while numerous guidelines have been released, there is room for improvement here. Otherwise we would have no workplace injuries, right? The answer lies in refining the effectiveness of our training and developing new methods along the way.

Donal “Radar” Huntsinger, an expert in the industry, had this to add about the intersection of safety and reliability:

“‘Reliability and Safety’ begin in the design phase of any machine. Case in point, the Ford Pinto was poorly designed which created catastrophic safety issues. No matter how much preventative, predictive, and condition-based maintenance performed, the poor design won until engineers went back to the drawing board.”

2. Teams should leverage technology to reimagine the way we conduct safety training.

Safety training today is typically conducted through videos, manuals, and testing.

The average learner is auto-piloting, clicking “NEXT, NEXT, NEXT” on training modules with about a 20 percent retention rate.

With new technology, like VR simulated training, early research shows that learners retain 80% of what they are taught up to a year later. New tech like this is promising for the world of safety, this can be leveraged to make breakthroughs in safety.

Other tech like developing “digital twins” can be transformative as well. “Digital twins” are produced by creating a virtual version of your critical assets. Programs can then be used to run simulations based on age, malfunctions, etc. This kind of technology can be huge in predicting hazardous and dangerous environments in your work space, so that your employees can predict and prepare for events that have not occurred before, but could possibly.

As a society, investing in these technologies should be one of our next steps. However, while these technologies are still being developed and refined, there are some awesome innovations that exist today. To name one, real-life safety training simulations are being conducted across the globe, not by every industry or company, but a good chunk. Places like Yale’s medical school have been recreating real-life medical scenarios in a controlled setting to simulate safety training for students to apply theory to the real world. This exercise is so impactful to prepare for when a dangerous event occurs in real life.

Here are some other examples of existing innovations today, suggested by Robert Russell and Bryan Bieshke, CMRP. To quickly surmise, Robert encourages remote-condition monitoring to keep techs safe, and also a system idea like “maintenance credit” to allow maintenance to be skipped if sufficiently deemed unsafe.

I won’t dive too deep into this idea, since you can find Robert’s expertise on this in his article here.


3. Businesses need to value safety (their people) over revenue.

The last initiative I want to propose is that businesses need to value safety, even above revenue. I don’t want to beat around the bush. The reality is that we live in a world where businesses will prioritize revenue, because revenue is generally perceived as the lifeline for a business. I disagree. What constitutes a successful business is the team that builds it. People are the lifeline for business, money is a tool.

But I digress, because regardless of whether you believe it is the people or the revenue that should be valued more, I have great news: the safety of your people and revenue are not mutually exclusive choices. They are actually tied to one another.

Paul O’Neill, CEO and Alcoa is a prime case study about this.. In 1987, his company was marked as the most dangerous place to work. He believed that, “Safety will be [the] indicator that [Alcoa] is making progress…”. Safety as the hallmark for success.

Investors thought he was crazy, stockholders were selling their shares like madmen.. But by the time Paul O’Neill retired in 2000, Alcoa’s market capitalization was 500% higher than in 1987 and rose to 27 billion with only 0.2 workplace injuries a year. What if every company could do that today?

Other than the ethical and economic impact of focusing on safety, company values and culture can promote so much more. Company culture can have a drastic impact on employee retention, happiness, and satisfaction. When I asked the community about their ideas to keep our technicians and employees safe during this inherently unsafe time, David Inman, FMP had this to say:

Closing Thoughts

Throughout my initial dive into the world of safety I’ve discovered two things:

  1. Huge improvements have been made in the world of safety
  2. However, those improvements have plateaued

I saw that innovations in preventative safety measures, training, and guidelines have promulgated these changes, but progress has been stagnant for over ten years. As a society we cannot be satisfied until the number of workplace injuries and fatalities hit 0.

Blue-collar professionals still constitute a large share of these incidents. To reiterate, the nature of their work is dangerous, and we constantly take that for granted. If we are able to balance reliability according to safety, leverage technology for more effective safety training, and transform the way businesses value the safety of their people, we can make another breakthrough to protect the lives of the people who maintain our infrastructure.

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